We become what we breathe? by Julie Peller PhD

The type of air pollution that is most often associated directly with human health ailments such as respiratory illnesses and heart disease is called particulate matter pollution, often abbreviated PM.  Since air-borne particulates exist in a wide spectrum of sizes, PM is classified accordingly.  The particulate matter known as PM2.5 includes solid and liquid particles that are 2.5 microns and smaller.  This category of particulate matter poses the most health problems since these tiny materials can penetrate the lungs.  A 2019 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that over 100,000 people in the United States die each year from ailments that result from exposure to PM2.5 and accompanying air pollutants.  Furthermore, the report states that the annual health care costs of air pollution-related illnesses are $886 billion in the US.

There are natural sources of PM, such as pollen, dust and the particulates created in forest fires.  The major man-made sources, the largest contributors to overall PM2.5 (excluding forest fires and volcanic eruptions), include vehicle emissions, industrial emissions and the burning of wood and clearing of land. Certain agriculture practices also create significant amounts of PM and other recently common landscaping equipment, leaf blowers and spray fertilizers/pesticides, add to a load of these pollutants in the air.  As with many other pollution problems, lower-income communities experience more PM pollution and suffer health impacts more than affluent communities. Often, those who work in or near the polluting industries/practices are exposed to much more PM pollution, which is often not noticeable.

Last fall, I was outside with my beautiful 4-year-old granddaughter when the fertilizer truck pulled up to my neighbor’s house across the street.  As I was gathering her stuff and getting ready to direct her back inside, the young worker began spraying the fertilizer/pesticide mixture onto the lawn. I did not get my granddaughter back in the house quickly enough.  Her nose began bleeding.  I began to think about the young employee of the lawn care company. These workers are obviously not required to wear personal protection.  I believe more people would think twice about using these lawn care services if workers were required to wear face masks, which protect them from harmful PM and chemical exposures.

PM pollution can and will be reduced as we lessen our dependence on all fossil fuels, a necessary element in combating climate change. However, we must also ensure proper regulations are in place and the laws are enforced to hold polluters accountable.  We can make personal choices that reduce or eliminate the creation of harmful PM, which include highly efficient and/or electric vehicles, non-carbon burning energies, such as solar and wind, proper care of the land, such as no-till farming, healthy lawn care routines and other sustainable practices. Reductions in PM and other air pollution will save thousands of lives and reduce serious illnesses every year.

“Love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.” 1 John 3:18 (If you are interested in knowing more about the monitoring of PM: (https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.main)


Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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